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There's Only One Mr. President

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When the Founding Fathers came up with the title "Mr. President," they thought they had devised the ultimate in casual forms of official address. In contrast to the sycophantic titles used toward European monarchs, which they considered unbefitting a republic of equals, this would give the person holding the highest office no grander an honorific than any ordinary citizen.

George Washington had a different approach. "His High and Mightiness" had rather a nice ring to it, he ventured to suggest.

However, ridicule carried the day, as Miss Manners notices that it so often does. And when the first president left office, he made a concession to the American taste for simplicity by decreeing that he would henceforth no longer carry the title of president, not even as a mere courtesy.

There could only be one president of the United States at a time, he reasoned, as our newest president also observed during the transition period. But there could be more than one American general, so he let it be known that he would revert to his previous title of General Washington.

One might have thought that the world had grown somewhat more casual since the 18th century. And a lot less interested in honorifics. But apparently we have also been growing more pompous. We now have four living former presidents addressing one another as Mr. President, and a citizenry worried that it would be disrespectful to follow George Washington's rule.

Folks, these are not newly minted PhDs who showcase their achievements by insisting on being called Doctor. When you have been president of the United States, everyone knows it. You can afford to be modest.

It is true that the first president's wife was known, in her day, as Lady Washington. Over the years, this evolved into the moniker first lady, which one of them, Jacqueline Kennedy, remarked made her sound like a horse.

But there is no such official title. By our law, the president's wife is a private citizen, although she is given precedence by courtesy.

Here, then, is a brief Protocol Primer.

The sitting president should be addressed as Mr. President. His wife is addressed, both in writing and in speaking, as Mrs. Obama. No first name, neither his nor hers, is used.

The former president is correctly addressed as Gov. Bush. His wife, who was the Mrs. Bush when he was president, reverts to being Mrs. George W. Bush, as her mother-in-law became again Mrs. George H.W. Bush after her husband's administration. (Miss Manners has nothing against their using Ms. and their first names if they wish, but is assuming the more conventional style.)

Similarly, the sitting vice president is the only Mr. Vice President, and his wife is simply Mrs. (or Dr.) Biden.

See how easy that is? And for another famous couple: In direct address, it would be "Madam Secretary" and "Governor Clinton."

Dear Miss Manners:

I am the CEO of a local nonprofit organization. When we had a grand opening for a new feature in our museum, our board president, his wife, a U.S. congressman, local dignitaries and many well-wishers were in attendance. After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, we all moved to another room so that some of the VIPs could say a few words.

There were five of us (including the congressman and our board president) at the front of the room, speaking and taking questions from the press. You can imagine my surprise when I saw the president's wife in the audience making funny faces at us, complete with hand gestures to the ears, etc.

I was aghast at her behavior, and I can't imagine what the congressman thought. I ignored the entire display as if it were not happening, offering no apologies to the congressman or anyone else.

Should I have pulled the board president aside and asked him if his wife was totally nuts or just boorish and had no idea how to behave in public? (I'm kidding, of course.)

What was the correct way to handle this?

Hand gestures to the ears? Please tell Miss Manners that you do not mean that the board president's wife stuck her thumbs in her ears and wiggled her fingers. She only cupped her ears to suggest that the speaker talk louder -- didn't she?

Speaking of what is between the ears, Miss Manners has been noticing that an increasing number of people seem to have something missing there. That would be the little mechanism that controls a mischievous impulse so that it is not expressed outwardly.

Fortunately, yours is working: It is what made you think that it would not be a good idea to ask your board president, "So is your wife totally nuts or just boorish?"

For whatever reason, this lady's brain is not working. But since she did not single out an individual to insult or disrupt the event, apologizing would only have called attention to it.

But why the member of Congress particularly? Surely he is the most likely to have seen such goings-on before.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

2009 Judith Martin

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